Thursday, March 24, 2005

We convened in LAX's Terminal 4. Kim via airplane from Denver. I arrived via car from San Diego. In a few hours, we would depart on a fourteen hour flight to Sydney, Australia.

It would be my first trip to Australia and Kim's fourth. I didn't know much about Australia. Leading up to this journey, I had accumulated most of my knowledge about the country from two sources.

The first source occurred six years ago when I visited an exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. The exhibit was titled Venom. It was an engaging display of creatures and information. I remember walking up to a small aquarium tank only to see a tiny octopus swimming about. It could easily sit in the palm of your hand. If you found it in the ocean, the tempation would be to hold it. And then you read the adjacent placard that tells you that the blue ringed octopus is one of the most poisonous animals in the world and one bite would kill you within minutes. And then you agree that it's not as cute as you think, like a koala with rabies. I wandered through the exhibit, looking at all of the animals and insects that could kill you with merely a glance, until I stood before a wall-mounted list of the top 10 most venomous animals in the world. A woman with Australian accent stood next to me and whispered, "It's probably not a good thing that five of the top ten are from my country."

This was my first exposure to Australia.

My second source of Australian knowledge arrived via book. This past Christmas, Kim gave me Bill Bryson's fascinating book about his time in Australia entitled, In a Sunburned Country. It's insightful, witty, and totally entertaining -- full of anecdotes, facts, and history. A highly recommended read.

Flying to Australia throws off your time. The flight is 14 hours long. Plus you cross the international date line. We left Los Angeles Friday night at 10:30pm, and arrived in Sydney on Sunday at 9:30am. I pulled off a small miracle and got six hours of sleep on the flight so I was anxious to hit the ground running.

When Kim was 16 she lived in Sydney for six months in an exchange program. Our impetus for traveling to Australia was to attend her friend's wedding. Our itenerary was simple. We'd spend the first week in Sydney where we would explore the area and hang out with her old friends. After the wedding, we'd spend two days driving from Sydney to Melbourne via the Prince's coastal highway. Melbourne would be our homebase for four days as we fanned out on day trips. Then we'd fly back to Sydney where we would catch a flight back to the States.

Upon landing we were picked up at the airport by Kim's friends. They drove us down to the area we'd be staying -- at another friend's house in the town of Cronulla -- along the coast and about twenty miles south of downtown Sydney.

The afternoon held a fun surprise for us. One of Kim's friends took us out into the harbor on his boat. We took the boat over to Jibbon Beach where we sank the anchor. Kim and I jumped into the water and swam to the closest beach.

Upon reaching the beach we noted a sign that said Aboriginal drawings were located 500 meters away. Barefoot and wearing only our swimsuits, we followed a path that led up the hill and into trees and brush. We rounded a corner and I grabbed Kim's shoulder. "Look at that," I said, pointing in a space between two branches. The largest spider I have ever seen sat suspended in the middle of its web. It had a long and thin body with extensive legs that made it the size of my hand. A trip in the middle of the week to the Australian Museum would reveal that it's a net-casting spider. When I saw the spider I went through stages. At first I found it disconcerting. Then I thought it cool. And my last thought brought a strange satisfaction... having seen a spider that big after walking casually -- as if this is the way things normally are here -- made me feel like I was definitely in Australia.

We continued on the path and entered a palisade. It was beautiful. The sun warmed my body after having just swam in the ocean, and it created beautiful patterns as it filtered through the trees. The negative spaces revealed the water down below. The breeze felt refreshing.

"Holy shit," I said.
"What?" Kim replied.
I waved my hand in an arc.

The trees surrounding us were filled with dozens of enormous spiders hovering in their webs.

"Oh, my god," Kim replied. We thought about retreating back to the safety of the beach where only jellyfish and sharks awaited us, but after having gone this far, we decided to continue on. We kept walking, branches brushing against us, until we reached a precipice that we couldn't descend down in bare feet. We returned to the beach and swam back to the boat, telling everyone about our spider adventure. Awaiting us on the boat was a bag full of whole shrimp. We sat on the boat, immersed in the harbor, surrounded by beautiful scenery, after having collected an experience. We peeled shrimp, popping the good parts in our mouth, and throwing the scraps into the water. It was a charmed life.

The next day we took a 45-minute train ride into the city. One transfer and two stops later we arrived at Circular Quay station -- the centerpoint destination for all Sydney tourists. On the tip, sat the Opera House.

The Opera House is Sydney's international icon. It's a magnificent building to see in person, because you discover things about it that don't come across in pictures. It's far more complex and complicated than I'd expected. Every angle reveals another secret. Lines and shapes disappear, overlap, and wrap around each other. But the first thing I noticed is that it doesn't have a smooth finish like I anticipated. The surface is composed of a mosaic that resembles the scales of a fish.

On the other side of the mini-harbor sat the massive Harbor Bridge. It's size just doesn't translate with pictures.

Kim and I walked across the bridge and viewed the Opera House from a different perspective.

After exploring the bridge and walking around the historic Rocks area, we sat on a Circular Quay park bench, listened to two acoustic guitarists play, and I did a drawing (pen and colored pencil on paper, 6"x5").

We made a return to downtown the next day to check out the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Sydney Aquarium.

The art museum was incredible as it focused on Australian artists. With Australia being an island populated by immigrants (like the U.S., albeit more recently), I expected the art to be derivative, heavily influenced by art from other locales, where I would point to a painting and say, "That painting reminds me of this artist." But I was pleasantly surprised to find the artwork unique, definitive, beautiful, and incredibly engaging. When Kim and I visited the Trades Fair Palace art museum in Prague, which also featured local artists, we were intrigued by how the artwork reflected the environment in which it was created. By looking at the paintings, you could sense the affect of Communism that enveloped the area. A similar experience awaited us in the Art Gallery. The question is: What can you tell about an area and its people by looking at the paintings it produces? When you look at the museum's collection you notice the isolation and desolation. Objects stand alone. Buildings are abandoned and orphaned. Only a single individual is painted. You don't have the French paintings composed of multiple-person tea parties or theater outings. The palette (the colors an artists chooses to paint with) of the Australian painters also appeared unique. I wonder if its partially due to them getting a different sun than their European counterparts.

Here's how you'll know that you're going to have a great time at an aquarium... when the very first exhibit is of a platypus. You gotta love em'.

After having walked around the city so much the previous two days, we decided to have a beach day and thus we descended onto nearby Cronulla Beach. Kim and I entered the water, cooled off, splashed around, and challenged the large waves that crashed upon us. Back on the beach, I did a drawing of the adjacent surf club building and then we went for a walk along the esplanade. Beginning our walk, I paused to read a posted sign....

Kim's friend, Claire, and her mother drove us down to Symbio Wildlife Park. We had a great deal of fun. I got to pet a koala and its baby.

I also got to feed kangaroos.

The area nearby the wildlife park also offered amazing views (elev. 1000 ft) of the enchanting town of Wollongong below.

The city of Sydney sits on extensive internal harbors. Thus, the ferry is a great way to get around. From Circular Quay, we took a ferry over to Manly Beach.

Kim and I walked down the corso, picked up some fish and chips, and sat on the boardwalk overlooking the beach. A short time later a lifeguard got on the intercom system and announced, "The winds are changing, and this is bringing in the bluebottle jellyfish. If you get stung, remove the tenticles and wash with cold water. The pain will last for approximately thirty minutes." It seemed like a funny announcement to hear, and another of those moments that says, I'm definitely in Australia. I expected a surge of people to storm up onto the beach but not a single person changed location. In the evening, we told Kim's friend Cassie this story and she said that when people buy fish and chips for the beach, they frequently buy a side of vinegar, so that if they get stung by a jellyfish, they can pour the vinegar on the wound.

An odd thing about Australia... you pay for condiments. Ketchup (locally known as tomato sauce) and tartar sauce cost anywhere between fifty cents and $1.50 per container. If you had to pay for condiments in the States there would be a revolt equivalent to the French Revolution.

The next day was the wedding, being held at the beautiful Domain within the Botanic Gardens. For the wedding, we stayed Quay Grand, located right on the harbor. The picture below was our view....

This hotel room was the nicest place I've ever stayed. We were tempted to skip the wedding and just sit on the balcony all day and with the help of a blanket, sleep there. A truly beautiful locale. The wedding was beautiful and we met so many wonderful people. One Australian guy told me about his first trip to the States and how he had a gun pulled on him in Los Angeles. There may be many quintessential L.A. experiences... seeing the Hollywood sign, riding the rides in Disneyland, eating a churro on the Santa Monica pier... but at the top of the list has to be having a gun pulled on you.

The second half of our Australian adventure begain the day after the wedding. We rented a car in downtown Sydney and would spend two days driving to Melbourne, where we would spend our remaining four days.

They drive on the left side of the road in Australia, so Kim and I had a mantra while driving there: left (turn) is easy, right (turn) is hard. Simple, but effective. We didn't encounter any problems driving on the wrong side of the road with the exception of frequently turning on the windshield wipers when we really wanted the turn signal.

There are two main ways to drive to Melbourne: the direct route (through Canberra) and the scenic coastal route. We opted for the scenic route.

The drive along the Princes Highway was different than I had expected. I anticipated a divided highway that would briskly transport us down to Melbourne, albeit on a longer path along the coast. It turns out that the Princes Highway is largely a two lane road (one lane each direction) that winds through the country-side and through the main street of every small town. There are many stretches of highway where there won't be a straight-away longer than 300 meters -- it's a very curvy road. But this all made the drive special and charming. The towns were quaint and intriguing. The views that we saw from our window were absolutely stunning. If the road curved frequently and wound around curiously, it did so at the most spectacular places, offering views that displayed enormous valleys, mountains, and coastline. And everything was so green and lush. Maybe I'm just getting old, but I find that coastlines become redundant (this isn't an Australian centric view -- I'm talking about all coastlines worldwide). As such, I preferred the views of the Australian interior. The southern end of New South Wales is beautiful country. We saw two kangaroos along the drive which thrilled us to no end.

In south-eastern Australia, they have a vigilant campaign to combat people falling asleep at the wheel. Almost as frequent as mile markers are signs that say, "Drowsy? Take a power nap." And, "Sleepy? 15 minutes of sleep could save your life." The problem is that seeing one sign after another has a hypnotic effect, and actually makes you tired. I wasn't tired until I saw the 27th sign asking me if I was tired.

As nighttime approached, and it can get dangerous driving at dusk (kangaroos come out and can get in front of the car), we decided to stop in the town of Eden, situated on the coast. In the morning we awoke to this view....

After our stay in Eden, we continued towards Melbourne where our actual destination was 90kms south of Melbourne, on Prince Philip Island. We were there to see the penguins in the Penguin Parade. Every evening at sunset, little penguins arise from the water in clusters, and ascend to their nests on the hillside. Kim and I took our seats in the bleachers and watched as the penguins would gather to form a pack (for safety), and then waddle furiously past the beach and onto the hillside, where some of them still have a long hike to their nest. They were a lot of fun to watch. We stayed at a hostel in the evening which worked out fine as we didn't get home from the penguins until 10pm, and just needed a place to lay our head. We found it funny that two days ago we were staying at a five star hotel with four separate rooms and a balcony overlooking Circular Quay, and now we were staying in a room with a bunk bed and a bathroom located outside the building.

The weather had been perfect during our first week in Sydney, but became moody while we were in the state of Victoria. I actually enjoyed the volatility because it created amazing coastal scenes with the waves crashing hard onto the rocks. The picture below was my favorite view of Philip Island. These islands off the very tip of the south-west point are called the Nobbies.

The next morning we drove up the coast to Melbourne. Along the way we stopped at the Gurdies Winery. We pulled into the parking lot at 10am and entered the warehouse type building. A disheveled man walked through a door and saw us. "Are you here for a tasting?" he asked us. "Yes," we replied. "Wow," he said, "I think that you've just set the record for the earliest tasting. It's only 10am. I haven't even had my coffee yet." Kim and I had a lot of fun at the tasting. The guy was funny and very knowledgable about wine. He told us that he had saved some money and was going to fulfil one of his dreams by traveling to New York City and spending a month there. Kim and I bought three bottles and continued on our journey to Melbourne.

We stayed in a B&B slightly south of downtown Melbourne in the fun and hip community of St. Kilda. The beach was one block west, and the main drag of Fitzroy Street, filled with restaruants and shops, was six blocks south. We were in a great location. The trolley picked us up outside the B&B, and took only fifteen minutes to arrive in downtown Melbourne.

We spent our first day strolling around St. Kilda. We walked along the esplanade and staggered into the Linden Gallery. They were having a "postcard" show, full of thousands of small paintings and drawings that were for sale. Kim and I picked out several that we liked and would have bought, except that you couldn't pick them up until a day after we left Melbourne. It's all in the timing. In the evening we sought refuge in a cool cafe called the Dog's Bar on Acland Street. Kim read and I did a drawing of Kim reading.

The next morning we arose to a fantastic breakfast, and departed to Melbourne's famous wine country, the stunning Yarra Valley.

Our first stop was at the Domaine Chandon winery. We arrived just in time to take the tour. It was an informative trip that took us through the operations. One fact that I found most interesting is that they plant a rose bush in front of each vine row. Bugs that are destructive will first attack the rose bush before infesting the grapes. This is an early alert system for the winery and allows them to react accordingly.

We stopped by four more wineries. One of them, TarraWarra, housed in a fantastic modern building, had its own Museum of Art.

We drove back to Melbourne in the left lane, and returned our car downtown. It would be public transportation from this moment on.

We took a tour bus along the Great Ocean Road. We stopped in a forest to spot koalas sitting in the trees. We paused by the all-star of the trip, the Twelve Apostles. While the Twelve Apostles are magnificent, I think that there's some marketing at work here. If they were called the Twelve Pillars they'd probably only attract half-of the traffic they do now. And actually, there aren't even twelve of them. If truth-in-advertising existed, they'd most likely be called the "Nine Rocks."

We left the Twelve Apostles to visit the Shipwreck Coast -- a stretch of water where hundreds of ships crashed due to it being one of the most dangerous waters in the world.

We followed the road around the coast and reached London Bridge....

Until 1990, London Bridge was actually connected to the land on the left side. Our tour drive told us the following story... the middle section of London Bridge collapsed in 1990. No one was hurt, but when it collapsed, two people -- a man and a woman -- were stranded on the standing section. Others were in the area and could call for help. The search and rescue team was called, but as they were currently on a training mission, they would be unable to rescue the couple for another hour and a half. The local news team was called. The news team has their own helicopter and rushed over there in hopes of gaining a great story. They made the couple a deal -- we'll rescue you if you promise to give us an exclusive interview. The man agreed -- anything to get them off of the isolated structure. However, the news team realized that their insurance didn't cover rescue operations so they were unable to retrieve the stranded couple. The official search and rescue team arrived and pulled the couple off of the rock. Upon landing, the couple raced over to their car and sped off. The news crew didn't get an exclusive interview, and the search and rescue team didn't even get a thank you. The main news guy thought that there was more to the story and did some research. He found two things: 1.) the guy had called his boss earlier and told him that he was sick and wouldn't be able to come into work that day and 2.) the woman who was with him was not his wife.

That was the end of our tour, and we returned back to Melbourne via an interior route.

We spent our last day in Melbourne wandering downtown and visiting the National Gallery of Victoria. Saw some more great artwork and then decided to check out the beach in St. Kilda. We walked along the boardwalk and saw this on the beach below...

If I had seen it on a Los Angeles beach, I would have thought that Hefner's Playboy yacht had crashed and this was all that remained of the passengers. But in Australia, they're jellyfish.

Later that evening we flew back to Sydney where we spent a few more days, before taking a 12 hour flight back to Los Angeles. It was a wonderful and enchanting vacation.

Monday, March 21, 2005

G'day mates. I returned from my vacation... more to follow soon....

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Added a background to my calla lily painting....

Calla Lily (oil on cardboard, 11 x 14")